Google Podcasts Hands On: It's About Time
For years, Android users have had plenty of options for listening to podcasts. The Google Play store offers perfectly competent apps, like Pocket Cast, Stitcher, and Player FM’s simply named Podcast. But Google hasn’t had a homegrown option since 2012, when it discontinued Google Listen just before the Serial-led podcast boom. Tuesday, it corrected that oversight. Google Podcasts is here, and it’s a very promising start.
Much like the recently launched Google Tasks, the Podcasts app feels fairly minimalist at launch. It greets you with section called For You, which includes new episodes of podcasts you’ve subscribed to, a separate tab for any episodes that are currently in progress, and another tab for any that you’ve downloaded. I occasionally use Google Play Music to listen to podcasts—you still can, if for some implausible reason you prefer it over a dedicated app. When I opened the Podcasts app, I was happy to find that the “All 8 Unicorns” episode of Story Pirates was marked at the timestamp where my daughter had left off.
Continue to scroll down, and you’ll see fairly anodyne sets of recommendations: top podcasts overall, trending podcasts, and then the most popular among categories including Comedy, Society & Culture, News & Politics, Sports, Religion & Spirituality, and Arts. There’s a whole lot of public-radio content in that initial mix.
When you search for and click on a given podcast, you can scroll through recent episodes, as you might expect. The Podcasts app will also recommend a related podcast underneath the one you chose. Individual podcast pages is also where you’ll find one of the app’s few fun surprises: Tap on the menu icon in the upper-right corner, and you’re given the option to add the podcast to your homescreen.
As for playback, there’s not much that stands out. You can play, pause, skip forward 30 seconds or skip back 10. The only real granularity comes in the ability to control the speed of playback, with literally 16 speeds to choose from ranging from half to double-time. You can’t rate episodes or series yet, or make playlists, much less enjoy more advanced options like the Overcast app’s recent Smart Resume feature, which ensures that when you pick a podcast back up after taking a break, it starts during a pause in talking.
Even the settings menu could almost be singular instead of plural: It only lets you choose when to auto-remove completed and unfinished episodes.
None of this should register as a complaint. It’s more of a warning to power-podcasters, who might want to stick with Pocket Cast until Google builds out its native solution a little more fully. Personally, I don’t require a ton out of a podcasting app in the same way I don’t make many demands of an FM radio. It makes the sounds I want, when I tell it to, and that’s plenty.
Besides, the real allure of Google Podcasts comes from the broader freight of Google itself. First, the app offers AI-powered recommendations based on what you already subscribe to and your listening patterns. As you continue to use it, the home screen will dynamically change, zeroing in from generic suggestions to more specific ones, like Top podcasts by WYNC Studios, and Popular with listeners of How Did This Get Made? Those nudges seem mostly on point at launch, although you do run into some seeming outliers: Apparently, Real Time with Bill Maher is popular with listeners of Story Pirates, which again is a show that turns children’s adorable, nonsensical stories into scripted radio plays.
Still, Google has built one of the world’s most powerful companies off of recommendations. Hopefully, as it continues to fine-tune its algorithms in Podcasts, it creates real opportunities for discovery, rather than merely surfacing the same top-tier podcasts under different headers.
“The recommendation is helpful and useful, and given the company’s lineage, pedigree, and history of using data to make recommendations, I think we should assume it’ll get better and better at that,” says Erik Diehn, CEO of Midroll Media, a podcast advertising network that works with major shows like Freakonomics Radio and WTF with Marc Maron. “That’s going, I think, to do good things for discovery, and bring new users into podcasts who might think oh, there’s nothing there for me.”
‘I think there’s no question that it will help bring more people into the podcasting world.’
Erik Diehn, Midroll Media
It helps that broadening the horizons of the podcasting world is one of Google’s stated goals here. “While there are more podcasts than ever before, there continues to be an imbalance in who is creating them,” wrote Google Podcasts product manager Zack Reneau-Wedeen in a post announcing the app. “Looking at top charts, only about a quarter of the most popular podcasts tend to be hosted by women, and even fewer by people of color.” He went on to say that Google is partnering with the industry to “increase the diversity of voices and remove barriers to podcasting,” with more details apparently to come this summer. Google did not respond to a request for further comment.
Podcasts has another key advantage in its ability to sync up with other Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home. Start a podcast during breakfast on your smart speaker, and you can seamlessly pick it up on the subway from your smartphone. If you’ve bought into the Google ecosystem, it removes another dollop of friction from your day.
Google has already tipped future features, and a commitment to building out Podcasts from here. The company says it’s working on automated subtitles for reading along, and its acquisition of popular podcasting app 60db last fall hints at more to come in the recommendation space.
Beyond your own interest in Podcasts, its very existence amounts to a sea change in the podcasting world. The majority of people who listen to podcasts do so on an iPhone, largely because Apple launched a dedicated Podcasts app all the way back in 2012, and gave it prime real estate on the home screen. A Podcasts app with the full weight of Google behind it could rapidly close that gap just by existing.
“It would have to be an absolutely horrendous experience to not move the needle. They’ve clearly delivered a solid baseline product,” says Diehn. “I think there’s no question that it will help bring more people into the podcasting world.”
Just how many people depends on another open question: Whether Google will make Podcasts part of the bundle of Google apps that ship on Android smartphones by default. Even if not, though, it signals that Android is a platform where podcasts belong, and wraps in the tantalizing prospect of a few AI-powered innovations along the way. Sure took long enough.